The success and popularity of the iPad has spurred publishers from all over the world to adopt the medium, creating a new audience for their printed content. However publishers that depend on subscription sales have struggled to find the right delivery model for the iPad.
Apple's terms and conditions have caused concern within the publishing industry. Many publishers are reportedly unhappy with the lack of data Apple provides on app buyers (their readers), which makes it difficult to deliver subscriptions, and many object to the 30 percent commission Apple charges for app store sales.
Another challenge is that there has been a dearth of off-the-shelf tools required to implement subscriptions properly on the iPad. Apple does provide a subscription option for any in-app item that is sold through the app store. This is simply a facility for multiple issues to be bought under one transaction price, and clearly it's absolutely key for making subscription-based apps work. However, the trick is that the app needs to communicate with externally hosted subscription-management softwareâ€”and Apple does not provide this capability. Mechanisms exist within Apple's Software Development Kit for writing the software to manage the subscriber and to control their rights to receive and view publications; however those mechanisms apply only to single-copy salesâ€”anything beyond that falls on the app developer.
Selling a subscription-based application on the app store is possible. Developers simply have to respect the way that Apple works, while enabling features, such as subscription management and the ability to communicate with app users, that publishers really need.
Done successfully, subscription apps can allow for free content, paid single issues, and subscriptions to all work on the same device at the same time, with simple-to-use authentication. With some ingenuity, app developers can build in the capability for users to submit an email address and password specifically related to the app for notification and synchronizing of content (required by Apple for app restoration). This allows users to access their content on multiple devices, and avoids the need for expensive, custom solutions on the publisher's website.
Behind the scenes, the subscription concept revolves around a group of editions as each subscription's center, with new editions being added to the group by the publisher at regular intervals along with specific shipping dates. The subscribers then gain access to subsets within that group, depending on the length of subscription they've purchased.
This model allows publishers to create content, select a delivery date and have the issue appear immediately for subscribers, along with a simple email and push notification to let users know that the new content is available. Even when they don't have contact information for users, publishers can still push notifications and updates to a user's device.
Publishers can also develop apps that offer value-added subscriptions, so that purchasers of a print or combined subscription can gain access to a digital edition for their desktop, laptop, iPad and iPhone, all with a simple update using a web service or control panel. This approach enables users to easily purchase both single copies and subscriptions directly from the iPad or iPhone with just a few taps using their Apple account. The 30 percent fee Apple charges may seem high to publishers but the ability to gain increased sales volumes from impulse buying and from the high traffic at the app store should be factored in to the equation.
While Apple doesn't yet have a renewing product type for subscription renewals, a publisher's app can be designed to inform the user when they need to purchase a new subscription period by push notification and e-mailâ€”re-subscribing takes a matter of seconds.
We expect that over time, Apple will continue to add more flexible options for publishers and as an app developer we welcome those features. However publishers should understand that there's no need to wait; there are options available to them today.
I recently heard of a fellow in Boston, a friend of a colleague, who was an early adopter of Amazon's Kindle e-reader [pictured]. When he first bought his Kindle, he was eager to show it off, frequently bringing it to coffee houses to bask in the glow of adulation from curious onlookers.
Then came the iPad.
This gentleman now does his Kindle reading in the privacy of his home, embarrassed to bring his relic out in public. He has what I call "Kindle Shame."
The iPad, like many Apple product introductions, has made lunatics out of many of us. It has also created an extraordinary opportunity for publishers, because the iPad widens the definition of eReader exponentially. People who couldn't justify the cost of a traditional eReader will pay more for an iPad because it's multi-purpose - it's not just an eReader, but for many users it also functions as a wi-fi-enabled laptop.
It also sets a new bar for publishers. In some ways it's a higher bar, because of its touchscreen interface. And in some ways, many would say, it's a lower bar because of Apple's unwillingness to support Flash-based publications.
Either way, the iPad has created a quandary for publishers, many of whom are desperate to get their content onto the iPad, and fast. Unless they are satisfied to present their content in a simple, non-Flash web based publication (only accessible where wi-fi is available), the iPad requires publishers to create a new iPad-specific digital format. And it also requires them to create an App.
At a high level, there are two options: create your own App (or outsource creation of one), or pursue a newsstand model. Creating your own App may require a higher up-front cost, but enables you to maintain control of your brand and leverage the popularity of the App Store and reach billions of potential global readers. This model is the most intuitive for readers who are looking for your content (they just search for Folio, for instance, at the App Store). Pursuing a newsstand model, where your publication is posted at an online newsstand and readers use that newsstand's App to access it, may lower your up-front costs, but in the long term you sacrifice control of your brand and potentially revenue due to exclusion of your title from the App store
Of course there are other variables to consider - too many to cover here. But please, whichever strategy you choose, make sure the process is repeatable. Many of the very first magazines available on the iPad were introduced with great fanfare and bells and whistles - but they were custom, one-time Apps. Except for the most cash-rich publishers (is that an oxymoron?), this is not a sustainable model. You don't want to have to start from scratch developing iPad Apps for every new edition of your publication. You wouldn't re-design every print edition from scratch, would you?
One other consideration as you evaluate your options: Ideally, the approach you select would be extendible to other eReader platforms as well, so you don't have to deal with multiple vendors. You might even consider creating a version for the Kindle, although much of that reading might take place in private these days.